OpenStreetMap and the Fourth Wall

Nokia’s announced intention to sell HERE has sparked a frenzy of speculation around new ownership. Will it be a consortium of automobile manufacturers? Will it be Uber? Will it be Baidu? Coverage is high on speculation (and tabloid excitement) as the rumored buyers come from many markets and corners of the world.

Two key facts have emerged from the coverage. First, map data is laced throughout many critical industries. From automotive to local search to mobile to business logistics to enterprise business intelligence, map data is a critical asset upon which a huge variety of services are built. Second, there are very few reliable worldwide source of that map data. This combination of wide-ranging importance and scarcity raises the stakes for the eventual owner of the HERE data. And for those who lose access to that data either due to competitive issues or a change in business focus.

What keeps surprising me is how ownership is the main question. I wonder if we’re not asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “Who should own this scarce asset?” maybe the right question should be “Why shouldn’t this valuable asset be owned by everybody?” If map data is so critical to so many industries, maybe the right answer is that it should be open, supported and used by all.

Google, TomTom, and Nokia HERE keep getting listed as the three spatial data sources available. Why do we forget the fourth one? The one most transparent to the audience, the one we all own and work on together? What about OpenStreetMap?

OpenStreetMap is the invisible fourth wall and it’s time to break it. It’s time to stop investing billions of dollars in the ownership of an increasingly antiquated dataset and instead invest in leveling the playing field. When digital maps were first created, collecting data about streets, places, addresses and geography was a specialized task, requiring expensive equipment, sophisticated systems and expert workers. Today, billions of people carry and drive devices that are fully capable of collecting and recording that data every day. Maps are based on physical fact. They are there for anyone to observe, capture, and record. It is time for companies to look at working transparently and in the open so we can turn location into something we all share.

This is the time. The world has never been more ready for an alternative to proprietary map data. People have never been more capable of collecting that data. And governments have never been more interested in pushing their own data out into the public domain. Let’s all share map data so we can innovate from a place of experience rather than scarcity and hoarding.

With the Nokia HERE deal supposedly closing at the end of the month, the timing for the largest ever OpenStreetMap conference June 6-8th at the United Nations is even more appropriate. We’ll be talking about how open geo data can transform an industry and our experiences amidst a radically changing business climate. Whether you represent a company, a government or a local community, we invite you to come and invest in open.

Alyssa Wright is President of the OpenStreetMap US Board as well as VP of Partnerships at Mapzen. She originally posted this in her OpenStreetMap diary.